Editorial note: This is the first of a two-part essay on the history of airpower theory as it relates to the current U.S. defense paradigm of great-power competition.
The United States is searching for a new strategic approach to the world. The conventional and irregular warfare doctrines centered on America’s land forces have proved incapable of producing even ambiguous success for at least half a decade. The exceptions to that rule—such as the First Gulf War or the killing of Osama bin Laden—are conspicuous for their limited objectives versus the overwhelming resources applied against their aims.
To the extent that the U.S. military has been able to approximate success, put a good face on its failures, or prevent the worst outcomes, its achievements have been linked most strongly to what airpower provides. The United States has avoided another massive global conflict for more than 70 years because of the unacceptable devastation it can impose from above on any state contemplating a traditional war.
With violence contained to regions distant from U.S. shores, the intelligence, mobility, communication and strike capabilities provided from aircraft and satellites over the battlefield have been essential to ground operations. Increasingly, those ground forces, minus a few advisors, are not American—the better to avoid provoking an unreliably apathetic American public.
All of this is arguable, but arguable in a way that makes you wonder why the advocates of airpower are not more ascendant in the current strategic debate. We can prepare for a land war in Europe or Asia, but no one should seriously expect this would be our first, second, or even fifteenth military move amid escalating tensions. The land force veterans who steer U.S. military strategy therefore have directed their focus from conflicts they would lose without an ever-shorter supply of allies to competitions that could be managed in ways that prevent soldiers and marines from being tested too severely.
Even here, though, deterrence largely hinges on air and naval assets, or in using ground troops as a tripwire for airpower retaliation. Where that dependence is not the case, the required capabilities lie in areas where services are still trying to stake claims—like cyber and information warfare—or in non-military economic or diplomatic instruments of national power.
The comparative silence of airpower advocates has much to do with cultural dysfunction in the U.S. Air Force, but it also derives from widespread academic disdain for airpower theory versus practice. Critics look to the dawn of air warfare to conclude that airmen have intellectually sterile theories of victory, leaving soldiers and sailors as the sole sources of strategic wisdom in their respective domains. The mistake here—made by many airmen as well—is treating early airpower writings as theory, on par with Clausewitz, much as modern strategists on this historical side of the machine gun might scoff at orderly lines of troops charging across open ground toward entrenched positions.
This article recasts the origins of airpower theory as a valid if failed reaction to the economic and moral imperatives of the period between the 20th Century’s two world wars—improvised myth-making to promote what airmen reasonably considered the most effective form of interwar mobilization. A second essay will examine how that theory has developed in the ensuing decades and suggest what airpower history teaches us about strategies that may be more suitable to current and future challenges.
To the victors go the blame
In 1921, Italian air power theorist Giulio Douhet made his famous declaration that “Victory smiles upon those who anticipate the changes in the character of war, not upon those who wait to adapt themselves after the changes occur.” For critics of airpower like Tami Davis Biddle, Douhet’s maxim reveals “too great a readiness to focus on the future without rigorously considering the past,” a narrow perspective endemic to most airmen, past and present.
The unbridled futurism of many interwar airmen, as Biddle and others note, produced two disastrous results in World War II. The first was a tactical faith in the ability of bombers to strike their targets despite air defenses and technical limits on bombing precision. The second was a strategic faith that widespread bombing alone could cause the economic or social collapse of an enemy nation. On the grounds of flawed tactics and strategy, airpower theory justly stands convicted of an appalling body count among both aircrews and civilians from London to Dresden to Tokyo.
Arguments supporting the fundamental bankruptcy of early airpower theory, however, neglect one important fact. Victory in 1945 did not smile upon those nations adopting military doctrines that best recognized the technological limits of the air arm or the need for close integration of air, land, and sea operations. The final victory belonged to those nations that embraced the fantasy of strategic bombing, and part of the credit for Allied success must go to the fantasists.
Despite its many faults, the inflated rhetoric of interwar airpower theory was grounded in the emerging economic realities of technological warfare, which required a sustained national commitment to airpower. A theory that envisioned war as a clash of technological elites provided some of the social glue that bound Allied citizens to those elites, to each other, and to the tragically flawed strategy that was only better than the other alternative on offer, which was no strategy at all. Interwar airpower theory may have rested more on faith than on fact, but such faith was not inappropriate for its time and place.
Reviewing the international situation in 1939, E.H. Carr argued that “economic power cannot be isolated from military power, nor military from economic. They are both integral parts of political power; and in the long run one is helpless without the other.” Interwar airmen may have been less astute and prescient observers than Carr, but they grasped this basic link between economic capacity and military capability in the coming war.
The brief history of powered flight also gave these airmen every reason to expect that the development of military aircraft in particular relied on the dedicated financial and industrial resources of their governments. To some degree, then, interwar airpower theory can be read as a successful attempt to sell technology that was unproven but nevertheless necessary for future conflicts.
As Lee Kennett observes in his history of World War I aviation, airpower ultimately “rested on what the airplane could do,” and by the end of the Great War “the tremendous strides in aircraft performance were obvious to all.” The maximum speed, ceiling, horsepower, and load-bearing capacity of aircraft had increased by several orders of magnitude during the war. What was less certain than the ability to rapidly improve aviation technology, however, was the willingness of exhausted nations to commit themselves to the task. By 1920, for example, the U.S. Army Air Service divested more than $173 million worth of its equipment, including many of its 11,000 aircraft, while slashing its manpower from a wartime peak of 190,000 personnel to just 9,596.
Such rapid and thorough demobilization—common among all Western nations by choice or imposition after the Treaty of Versailles—did not produce an immediate compensating surge in commercial aircraft development. American airpower advocate William “Billy” Mitchell argued in 1925 that commercial aviation would flourish when companies could “cut the cost of operation and maintenance down,” but the emerging technology still required governments “to take the initiative in order to demonstrate how these things can be brought about.”
Keeping technological pace with potential adversaries required a firm industrial base nurtured through government procurement and subsidies. Among nations alternately seeking a “peace dividend” and struggling with economic depression, an objective appraisal of aircraft limitations and the relative virtue of combined arms would appear to be a doubtful path toward government support of aviation technology. Shameless advocacy surely seemed the wiser course.
Economic constraints shaped Douhet’s radical concept of strategic bombing. His early support for bomber development prompted others to suggest that Italy also should expand its investment in air defenses or “auxiliary” forces to support land and sea operations. Douhet responded to this debate with his 1929 “Recapitulation”:
Practically, it is necessary to get the highest return from the money and means invested …. The war expert must realize that the economic potentiality of a nation is what it is, no more and no less; and that nation must live first and arm itself afterward.
If one reasoned, as Douhet did, that aircraft could destroy anything on the surface more efficiently and effectively than surface forces could destroy aircraft or each other, then aircraft were the best option for national defense. Although richer countries might have the luxury of diversifying their military forces, Italy did not: “Italy can afford a Fiat; America can afford a Ford.”
An isolationist America was in the market for a Fiat, however, and Mitchell also found himself pleading the economic efficiency of an air force. A serving but disgruntled Army officer after the Great War, Mitchell’s advocacy of strategic bombing focused on the military value of aircraft against surface ships—the principal contemporary threat to American security and, conveniently, Mitchell’s chief competitor in the battle for budget dollars. His controversial 1921 sinking of the former German battleship Ostfriesland was foremost a demonstration of economic efficiency, an argument he put in his critics’ mouths in his personal account of the sinking: “some thought we should be restrained from doing it because it would lead people to believe that the navy should be entirely scrapped, as a thousand airplanes could be built for the price of one battleship.”
Mitchell’s economic argument also reached beyond strict military necessity. Government-procured aircraft offered the benefits of peacetime use in such civil missions as mapping, fire patrol, crop dusting, and mail delivery.
Sir Hugh Trenchard similarly leveraged the versatility of airpower in the budget battles he faced as the first chief of the Royal Air Force. The RAF’s pioneering status as an independent air arm in April 1918 emerged from public reaction to largely uncontested German zeppelin and bomber raids on British soil. The moral and material effects of strategic bombing therefore remained an ill-defined cornerstone of RAF doctrine throughout the interwar years and World War II.
However, Trenchard did not put all his eggs in Douhet’s basket. He pushed the RAF to the forefront of policing the empire by touting the efficiency of “air control” over other forms of limited military action. He allowed protégés like J.C. Slessor to develop sophisticated concepts for air-land warfare while working with the British Army. Although the major developments in fighter aircraft, radar, and communications seen in the Battle of Britain mostly followed Trenchard’s ascension to the House of Lords, the seeds of the air defense mission were sown during his tenure. The RAF that adopted and integrated this technology and doctrine—however imperfectly—was a product of Trenchard’s pragmatic approach to selling airpower.
Although the actions of Trenchard and Mitchell can be dismissed as political opportunism, they had positive strategic implications. Recent histories of the Luftwaffe and Japanese naval air power conclude that—despite sound technology, superb training, and effective combined arms doctrine—both Axis powers lost battles of attrition against economies that were more massive and more resilient.
The mobilization of these economies for the demands of total war was not a foregone conclusion, however. The eastwardly transplanted Soviet economy combined with universal conscription and the resurrected operational concepts of Mikhail Tukachevskii to produce the most formidable air-land force in the European theater by 1943, but only after sacrifices unimaginable to a modern democracy. In ways more suited to the contemporary debates and delusions of their governments, advocates like Trenchard and Mitchell kept nascent airpower capabilities alive when political and economic realities seemed unfavorable to military aviation. There is no strong reason to speculate that more sober theories would have placed American or British forces on a firmer practical footing by 1939.
Morality: sin, desperation, or hope?
Michael Sherry considers the use of air power theory to advance the political and economic interests of airmen as a symptom of “technological fanaticism”—the sacrifice of suitable strategic and moral ends for airpower to the means of developing and organizing aviation technology at any cost. But if Allied airpower consisted of men and machines without a rational strategy, as Sherry and Biddle suggest, it at least had men and machines. This was all Britain and America could offer through most of the war.
After the British Army’s retreat at Dunkirk, the Royal Navy held its own in the Battle of the Atlantic but could not check the consolidation of German power across Europe. The destruction to American battleships at Pearl Harbor forced the U.S. Navy to reformulate its strategy and rebuild its now airpower-centered carrier fleet. Even after years of preparation by ground forces for the invasion of Normandy, Max Hastings concludes with ample justification that “when Allied troops met Germans on anything like equal terms, the Germans almost always prevailed.” If Allied air forces blindly stumbled toward a bloody victory in 1945, they did not stumble alone.
Interwar airpower theory vastly overestimated the ability of strategic bombing to destroy an enemy’s will or capability to fight. Given the lack of viable land or sea options in a future war, however, airmen correctly read the prevailing strategic situation. After the carnage of World War I, most nations rejected large standing armies and were reluctant to commit conscripted troops to battle. Navies could not force a decision unaided, except through an agonizingly slow and painful economic blockade.
The fundamental belief of Douhet and other airmen was that air power could resolve this dilemma. Figuring out how to win was a secondary concern; the first order of business was national unity behind the technological elites who would engineer victory.
In Douhet’s war of bombers, this social cohesion demands fatalistic submission: “We must therefore resign ourselves to the offensives the enemy inflicts upon us, while striving to put all our resources to work to inflict even heavier ones upon him.” Mitchell chose to emphasize a democratic groundswell toward resistance or capitulation, arguing that the prospect of air war “will cause a whole people to take an increasing interest as to whether a country shall go to war or not, because they are all exposed to attack by aircraft.”
History would not support the airmen’s creed that victory could be achieved solely through the effects of strategic bombing on the enemy. However, airpower critics mostly have failed to note that an obvious corollary to this belief did prove true. As long as an existing, active air force threatened an enemy’s will or capability to fight, countrymen and allies could remain committed to the idea of victory, even when available military force proved somewhat unequal to the task.
As Sherry observes, this idea could bear dark fruit:
The target of attack was not so much the enemy as the flagging spirits of one’s compatriots. Air war, like no other weapon in the modern arsenal, satisfied yearnings for blood and punishment among peoples deeply wounded by war and deprived of decisive victories.
From the vantage point of the massive devastation of strategic bombing in 1944-45, the “yearnings for blood and punishment” were too severe for Sherry or any person of conscience. From the perspective of 1940-41, however, such yearnings look less like vengeance than hope for strategically hapless nations.
Stephen Bungay’s summary of Prime Minister Winston Churchill’s strategy for the Battle of Britain—“in saving themselves, the British would save civilization”—may seem like rhetorical excess, but Churchill and the RAF pulled off something close to it by using airpower to hold off the Nazis while moving America closer to war. Less exalted but essentially valid claims for this kind of moral effect could be made for the 1942 Doolittle Raid on Tokyo and the early stages of the Combined Bomber Offensive.
Even when the war in Europe was finally in the hands of contending land forces, airpower remained an important force for Allied cohesion. As Hastings remarks of Allied troops in Normandy, “A glimpse of clear skies at dawn and the words, ‘it looks like we’re going to have air today,’ became one of the great morale boosters on the unit radio net.”
Interwar theorists believed airpower was sufficient to win the next war. It was not. However, at key moments in World War II, the idea that air power could win wars proved as important for the resolve of statesmen, soldiers, and citizens as it did for airmen trying to forge a viable military force.
For Michael Howard,
The Second World War was to see a curious blend of mass participation and deadly esoteric duels between technological experts. By the second half of the century the peoples of Europe were to be extruded almost totally from conflicts which, if they came, would be fought with comparatively small numbers of military technicians wielding destructive power on an almost inconceivable scale.
Douhet, Mitchell, and Trenchard produced a myth of airpower that drew deeply from this historical arc. The myth was not their special delusion: Soviet propaganda’s glorification of “Stalin’s Falcons” and Adolph Hitler’s airborne descent into Nuremberg at the opening of Triumph of the Will are cast in a similar mold.
Like all myths, airpower prophecies were often wrong in the details but right in the essentials. If anything, the underlying truths of interwar airpower theory—the need for sustained economic investment and moral cohesion to sustain the forces a nation can field to fight—have become more relevant over time.
Today, the United States has a small, technologically sophisticated, all-volunteer force supporting military operations across the globe. Some of those operations are warm gestures of humanity, others are coldly ruthless. Some are vital to U.S. interests, some seem detrimental to America’s standing. None have prepared the military to meet the challenges ahead, and military officials sense danger unless the nation is willing to do even more.
The military’s improvised strategy for great-power competition—much like interwar airpower theory—is a bid for the financial and moral capital needed to win a coming world war. In essence, the civilian and military leaders of America’s defense establishment are all airmen now. In the next article, we will examine how time has tested these resuscitated myths for mobilization, and what the more recent history of airpower has to teach us about the wars to come.
Giulio Douhet, The Command of The Air, trans. Dino Ferrari (1942), new imprint (Washington, DC: Air Force History and Museums Program, 1998), 30.
Tami Davis Biddle, Rhetoric and Reality in Air Warfare: The Evolution of British and American Ideas About Strategic Bombing, 1914-1945(Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2002), 291.
Edward Hallett Carr, The Twenty Years’ Crisis, 1919-1939: An Introduction to the Study of International Relations(1939), reprint (New York: Perennial, 2001), 132.
Lee Kennett, The First Air War, 1914-1918(New York: Free Press, 1999), 93-94.
Lieutenant Colonel Peter R. Faber, “Interwar US Army Aviation and the Air Corps Tactical School: Incubators of American Airpower,” in The Paths of Heaven: The Evolution of Airpower Theory, ed. Colonel Philip S. Meilinger (Maxwell Air Force Base, AL: Air University Press, 1997), 184-85.
William Mitchell, Winged Defense: The Development and Possibilities of Modern Air Power—Economic and Military(1925), reprint (Mineola, NY: Dover Publications, 1988), 87.
Douhet, 236-37. Emphasis in original.
Colonel Phillip S. Meilinger, “Trenchard, Slessor, and Royal Air Force Doctrine before World War II,” in The Paths of Heaven, 51-53.
Meilinger, 49-50 and 65. Wing Commander J.C. Slessor, Air Power and Armies, reprint (London: Oxford University Press, 1936).
Stephen Bungay, The Most Dangerous Enemy: A History of the Battle of Britain(London: Aurum Press, 2000), 57-86.
James S. Corum, The Luftwaffe: Creating the Operational Air War, 1918-1940(Lawrence, KS: University Press of Kansas, 1997). Mark R. Peattie, Sunburst: The Rise of Japanese Naval Air Power, 1909-1941(Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 2001).
Von Hardesty, Red Phoenix: The Rise of Soviet Air Power, 1941-1945(Washington, DC: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1982). Richard Simpkin and John Erickson, Deep Battle: The Brainchild of Marshal Tukhachevskii(London: Brassey’s Defence, 1987).
Michael S. Sherry, The Rise of American Air Power: The Creation of Armageddon(New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1987), 251-52.
Max Hastings, Overlord: D-Day and the Battle for Normandy(1984), reprint (New York: Vintage Books, 2006), 315.
Douhet, 55. Emphasis in original.
Michael Howard, War in European History, updated ed. (London: Oxford University Press, 1976), 120.
Hardesty, 45. Leni Riefenstahl, Triumph of the Will(1935), DVD ed. (The Film Preserve, 2000).